In the quiet of the church on Good Friday, I ponder mercy. What does it mean for us to show mercy on Australian streets? I’m in a carpeted church which has heating in the winter, airconditioning in the summer. None of the weather extremes come near to the earthquakes and 37-degree heat I lived two years ago in Nicaragua, but there are fewer people and it’s a shorter service of the passion. There is less faith.
Purple cloaks the cross, covering up the figure of Jesus. Jesus is covered for these few hours of Good Friday. But, if I read the Gospels literally, and think of the words of Mother Teresa, Jesus is still there, present on the streets of this affluent Melbourne suburb, often in distressing disguise . Mother Teresa said that the worst poverty she ever encountered was in New York City and Melbourne, because people were so lonely.
I approach a woman, knowing already that my money won’t do much. I don’t really want to approach her, not because I don’t feel compassion, but because I know that hers will be a more complicated problem to solve than what money can buy. And look at me there, assuming she has a problem. Obviously my compulsion to do good whether it’s wanted or not is a problem. She probably wants me to piss off.
She knows too that my money is tokenistic and asks for a cigarette instead.
I don’t have one.
She doesn’t want the money.
The money is for me to salve my conscience. It isn’t really for her. It’s for me to walk away and feel better that I did something, no matter how purposeless. On Good Friday, the need to help, the need to atone seems to bite to the bone.
Whether she takes my twenty or not I won’t feel better in any lasting measure.
I’ll likely worry after giving it to her that it was the wrong thing, and I’ll know that it wouldn’t make much difference beyond today. Maybe she’ll spend it on drugs? Hell, she could have taken the twenty and bought a whole pack of ciggies. She saved me that worry, that guilt, that sense of responsibility for her fate. She saved me lying awake imagining her shooting up. She showed me mercy.
At times, I’ve given lots more than a twenty, in the vain hope it would be enough for a room, or a post-office box, or a jacket or a bed, only to see the same person weeks later, still shrouded in a hol-ey blanket with a mangy dog at their side. Thank goodness it doesn’t stop me giving or make me bitter, no matter how futile.
Money doesn’t buy love or cure mental illness or appease loneliness. Is this a reason not to give it? Can we truly give love in a two-minute exchange? Can we communicate mercy through a Gloria Jeans Latté or a box of fish and chips? Is it merciful to toss a coin at someone without learning their name?
A roof or food are the most basic of needs but rarely what Melbourne or Sydney’s homeless are hungry for. We have hungry souls. In my warm church I have a hungry soul.
My friend Peter is a priest who works with people with mental illness. He knows better than most the frustration of moldy bread given to hungry souls. It’s not the bread, it’s the love they need. Jesus cries out from behind the purple cloak.
I wonder if those that front up to the parish each week in their Mercedes’ and BMWs are hungrier than Robert who sits outside woollies every day, drawing lines, perspectives and houses in mechanical fashion with a black felt-tip pen and a ruler.
He has a place to sleep and lots of eat and drink. I buy him a coffee but only because he wants one. He knows I’m buying it for me, he’s not stupid. He has a sense of humour which he shows by labelling his woollen beret his ‘salary cap’.
I won’t feel okay about jumping back in my car and heading back if he doesn’t let me give him something. But he’s giving to me. The transformation continues.